Updated: Mar 30, 2019
RACIAL NARRATIVES, RACIAL IDENTITIES AND WHITE GUILT
Sometimes I have to think twice before saying the r-words (race, racism and racist) because I know it can cause alarming reactions. But recently I realised that, for some, the w-word is just as scary. Some face the fear of being called “white” and this fear needs to seriously be addressed if we wish to improve race equality in Scotland.
It all started when a friend of mine was surprised that I used the term “brown” to help her identify the person I was taking about – someone of South Asian descent. She was shocked because she thought that was considered offensive. When we later picked up the conversation, I was glad to hear that she wanted to talk about race more openly rather than remain in silence for fear of offending. In fact, the next day she openly discussed this with some pupils to see how they felt about the term “brown.” That is something I wish every educator would do – open more honest conversations about race in their classroom with a genuine desire to learn alongside their pupils.
While I don’t often use the term, it seemed more convenient (i.e. faster) than saying “a person of South Asian descent” – especially when I was not entirely sure that the person being described was actually of South Asian descent. I do occasionally use the word “brown” to describe myself as I am a non-black person of Indian descent and I embrace that part of my identity. After considering my friend’s surprise that it wasn’t offensive, I agreed that I couldn’t speak for every person of colour. For all I know, there may be some South Asians out there who might not like being called “brown” and would rather allude to the “fairness” of their skin. After all, anti-blackness and colourism (discrimination based on the darkness of your skin, on the desire to have white skin) are still major problems in many Asian countries where sales of skin-whitening products are insidiously poisoning minds and bodies as a result of the long-lasting influence of colonialism.
We then went on to discuss the fact that a person being white is rarely mentioned when trying to describe someone – it’s always the default position. Sure, it’s the majority population in Scotland, but it’s worth considering more critically. My friend then revealed that she personally did not feel comfortable being called “white” and she preferred being called “Caucasian.” This caught me entirely off guard. I finally understood why so many white people in Scotland had been uncomfortable whenever I attempted to mention their whiteness, to the point of calling me “racist” for noticing their skin colour. It is a pattern that I have noticed before in Scotland, where people prefer to see themselves as "Scottish" rather than "white," as if the two were synonymous and as if Scotland was raceless. Nae problem here...
To her, and probably many other white people, being called “white” made her uncomfortable because it feels too close to narratives of white supremacists (like the K.K.K.) and the idea that “white is right.” In other words, some white people are afraid that their racial identity may cause them to be unwillingly stereotyped, essentially associated with white terrorists. The fear of being labelled “white” is a fear of losing individuality and losing control of the narrative as a unique human being.
I cannot stop myself from pointing out the irony of this fear. Unwillingly stereotyped? Associated with terrorists because of your skin colour? Constantly trying to regain control of the narrative, disproving negative stereotypes while hoping you won’t be reduced to a token, a symbol that racism is no longer restrictive? As a minority in Scotland, that is exactly what people of colour have to deal with on a daily basis and on so many levels. The main difference is that white people only tend to vaguely acknowledge, not necessarily confront, their whiteness when faced with “otherness” – people of colour. And even then, the nature of whiteness is only superficially recognised, if recognised at all. As a majority in Scotland, white people rarely have to experience any racial discomfort and self-awareness since there are rarely any occasions that make a white person feel isolated because of their skin colour. So when that rare time does come and they have to acknowledge their racial identity, it becomes difficult and it causes a wide range of defensive behaviours (e.g. calling oneself “Caucasian”) and emotions – white fragility at play.
While I can empathise with my friend’s desire to be unique and not deal with the murkiness of racial categories, we don’t live in an ideal world and pretending that race isn’t affecting us is detrimental. Those uncomfortable truths need to be explored in more depth. White people are not forced to face this discomfort on a regular basis but they need to practice. And I understand that it’s not easy. Being biracial, I have had to come to terms with the fact that one side of my family (white) was complicit in the oppression of people who looked a lot like the other side of my family (South Asian). It is a constant struggle at the back of my mind, a common discomfort that some call “white guilt.” Distancing and ignoring that feeling of guilt is not productive because it ignores the problem and promotes oblivious inaction. We are not personally bad for being born into such identities, but as a social entity we all have an impact on others and we always carry the baggage that we inherit.
Some inherit white privilege. Some inherit the absence of white privilege. Others, like myself, inherit a bit of both as we navigate our way through racial borders. We should be using that white guilt to motivate us to make reparations, to compensate for our ancestor’s harms, while not blaming ourselves individually for the past, yet taking responsibility for the present. It can be liberating to perceive ourselves as selfless, part of a wider tapestry of power structures in which we are merely a speck. But pretending that we are an individual entity, a tapestry of our own, ignoring our ties to the bigger picture, is harmful and unproductive for ourselves and for others.
By denying your racial identity, you are denying a facet of your complex identity as a human being born in a racial society. By denying your racial identity, you are denying a subtle feature of your humanity. When you begin to accept your racial identity, you can begin to accept that you play a role in wider structure, that you have unconsciously learned racism through the process of socialisation and that it does not necessarily make you a categorically “bad” person.
To be continued... (Part Two: White Saviour VS White Ally, White Supremacy and Caucasian)